I remember, at the time of the original PlayStation’s release in 1994, attempting to weigh up the strengths and weaknesses of all of the machines that were coming to market in what uses to be called the “hardware cycle”. Alongside Sony’s machine other contenders included the Philips’ CD-i, and the 3DO, in addition to entries from manufacturers more firmly established in the games business: Nintendo’s N64 (still a few years away and known at the time by a series of enigmatic codenames), and Sega’s Saturn.
Of those named above only the N64 retained the use of cartridges as storage for its games. All of the other machines represented console gaming’s first steps into optical disc media – a choice that impacted the design of the machines in some interesting ways.
Looking back now from the age of pocket-sized HD touch screens, the original PlayStation’s flimsy flip-top lid seems cheap and inelegant. At the time the very prospect of popping its little catch to insert one of the system’s black CD-ROMs was a tactile thrill from the first time you saw the machine pictured in a magazine. The design of the system was built entirely around the disc-housing at its centre. Fairly basic, not showy, and a terrible shade of dishwater grey inherited from Nintendo’s SNES, the unit was nevertheless desirable and the object of much attention right from its inception. Despite its rather boxy design, Sony had created a machine, the brand design of which was to become almost synonymous with videogames, until the arrival of Nintendo’s Wii in 2006 supplanted it in the mainstream consciousness.
I haven’t been a fan of some of Sony’s design choices with PlayStation. The first machine seemed utilitarian and charmless, but was improved greatly with a redesign in 2000 that reduced its size and rounded out its edges. Similarly the original PS2, whilst highly desirable and impressive at launch in terms of its processing power and capabilities, looked like a slab of concrete, or an eyesore of a skyscraper from which one may have fallen. Again a slim version four years later made for a much better looking machine. For the XBox 360, Microsoft employed San Francisco’s Astro Studios, who worked in collaboration with the Hers Experimental Design Laboratory (Osaka, Japan) to prove it was possible to make an elegantly designed system with a relatively large form factor (necessitated by the need for powerful processors and the fans required to cool them). Sony, again, fared less well: the PlayStation 3, whilst less industrial-looking than its predecessor in terms of design, adopted a gloss finish which made it a magnet for dust, and was hurt by a questionable decision regarding the typeface for its logo. For a third machine in a row it took the advent of the slim model in 2010 to correct some of these missteps.
One element of the PlayStation brand which has remained constant, and which is undeniably amongst the most iconic pieces of brand design in the last 20 years is the controller, and in particular the four symbols that grace its face buttons. Whilst Nintendo has changed its joypads a lot between hardware (making a revolutionary controller the centrepiece of their latest machine), the PlayStation 3’s controller bears a striking resemblance to the original PlayStation’s. The joypad’s lead designer, Teiyu Goto, recently gave an interview to Famitsu magazine in which he discussed the process of designing the system and its controller. Particularly interesting are his comments on why he chose to forgo the normal lettering of face buttons in favour of symbols:
I gave each symbol a meaning and a color. The triangle refers to viewpoint; I had it represent one’s head or direction and made it green. Square refers to a piece of paper; I had it represent menus or documents and made it pink. The circle and X represent ‘yes’ or ‘no’ decision-making and I made them red and blue respectively. People thought those colors were mixed up, and I had to reinforce to management that that’s what I wanted.
Those four symbols have become powerfully intertwined with the idea of videogames in a way which lettered buttons never could. It was a stroke of genius on Goto’s part to implement them, and they have understandably become the central aspect of the PlayStation brand. Perhaps with PlayStation 4 Sony will design a machine that matches their simplicity and elegance.